It was 1917. The out-of-touch, autocratic Tsar had been overthrown by the provisional government, but the Russian people were still resentful of the way their country was run. What ensued was a brutal disestablishment of power and an uprising of worker’s councils called Soviets. This is one of the most well-known power struggles of the twentieth century, leading to a five-year civil war in one of the world’s most powerful countries.
Shostakovich had been commissioned to compose a commemorative piece for the anniversary of the event before, in 1927, with his second symphony To October. However, on the 37th anniversary, he was again asked to compose for the occasion. The famous tale goes that the conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow found himself short one piece for the celebrations. Days before the performance (or hours depending who you ask), he begged Shostakovich to compose the opening piece. Shostakovich complied, and the Festive Overture was born.
The overture itself is based on Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture composed in 1842. This piece has the air of an unabashed celebration and being quite typical of Shostakovich, the piece utilises counterpoint techniques to develop themes in a dramatic and lyrical romantic style. The work has broad appeal, being a proud, celebratory piece and refraining from using much chromaticism at all, another characteristic of Shostakovich’s music.
Beginning the piece is a triumphant fanfare in the horns, announcing the start of a six-and-a-half minute celebration of Russian nationalistic pride. This is followed by a swift change to a fast melody in the wind section which is passed onto the strings, where for a time the music becomes quiet. Shostakovich’s use of dynamics are unpredictable and incite anticipation, employing soft passages preceding overt flourishes of dramatic harmony as well as militaristic rhythmic passages. Ending in spectacular fashion, as one would expect from such a piece, the brass take centre stage slowing the pace down to a dramatic drum roll with a majestic sustained chord to finish off the commemorative work.
Being a favourite in most symphony orchestra repertoires, the Festive Overture has been performed numerous times. In 1980 the piece was played for the Summer Olympics in Moscow, as well as the 2009 Nobel Prize concert. With such an exceptional reputation, the piece is enjoyed not only in Russia, but in countries all over the world.